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Possible Worlds: Jun Kaneko at the Portland Japanese Garden

An exhibit of the Japanese American artist's sculptures is strategically placed amid the garden. Do they fit into this reflective space? Decisively, yes.

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STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


“The Japanese garden is not an enigma. Instead, it is more like an intricate and beautiful specimen of origami whose secrets cannot be readily plumbed by the casual observer. Just as we can with patience and care learn the folds and tucks that comprise the delicate paper crane, so can we come to understand and appreciate the components of the Japanese garden and understand the ideology and philosophy that underlie its creation. The Japanese garden is not intended to be a riddle but rather a reserved – almost sacred space in which the rootless wanderer may pause from the travails of daily life long enough to place them within perspective. … They are spiritual amplifiers, sounding boxes for the human soul.

– Andrew R. Deane, Japanese Gardens: Notes on Perspectives, Perceptions & Synthesis

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GREAT GARDENS entice you to return. If you are lucky enough to live close to one, repeat visits across seasons provide a panorama of change, sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, depending on the weather, the amount of light present, and decisively the time of year.

And so it was for me, after just having written about Portland Japanese Garden some weeks ago, that I visited again – this time, however, with a bit of trepidation. The change I anticipated was not so much the maples, finding their way to full color only in late October, if that with the drought. Rather I wondered about the addition of art into the landscape, part of the current exhibition Garden of Resonance: The Art of Jun Kaneko. Multiple large sculptures are placed across the garden.

All images were taken by me at Portland Japanese Garden, unless otherwise noted. All of Kaneko’s sculptures are untitled. The taller Dango sculpture weighs 63 pounds, the shorter one 35 pounds. They are on heavy stone bases that have been neatly covered in soil and moss. The base for the shorter sculpture weighs 604 pounds, the base for the taller is 500 pounds. The sculptures are glazed by hand using traditional Japanese-made brushes.

The Pavilion contains recent work, including glass sculpture, drawings, paintings, hand-built and glazed raku ceramics.

Drawings and paintings all untitled.

I have been, publicly and passionately, lamenting the fashionable practice of Botanical Gardens to drop art among the plants. I understand the temptation to succumb to the “wow” factor, as Sabina Carr, Atlanta Botanical Garden’s vice president for marketing, succinctly put it: “Wow, you have to see this.” (Visitors there can currently experience Origami in the Garden, metal sculptures resembling those folded papers, on steroids, many over 20 feet tall and in technicolor hues. No comment.)

Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, Coral Gables, Florida. Photo: Friderike Heuer

I also understand that attracting more and different visitors, whether by presenting Dale Chihuly’s eye candy or melancholic simians by local talent, makes a difference to marketing, and at times ensures economic survival. But I am worried that we’re losing the ability to pay the attention necessary for learning of, and finding out about, a single subject.

San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California. Photo: Friderike Heuer

This is inevitable, given how evolution geared our visual system to segregate figure from ground. Perceptual attention magnets that are linked to entertainment and visual pleasure are distracting from the task at hand – education about plants. Botanical gardens were historically, after all, meant to help us understand taxonomies, or possibly develop interest in biology. They are where pressing issues of conservation are made tangible, where you begin to understand the links of flora, climate, and geography. Much of it pushed aside by the unavoidable visual pull of art among the shrubbery. I hastened to add, at the time:

“I have nothing whatsoever against Giacomettis on your pristine lawn that make the neighbors drool, or marble busts under your rows of Linden trees, or garden gnomes lining the lily pond. Well, I might reconsider the approach to gnomes. Art in gardens serves a purpose to guide the gaze toward the distance, shaping the way you view the horizon, or it delights you in the close-up, concentrating space. But your own garden, estate gardens, publicly accessible gardens, are not about what at the core defines botanic gardens: the scientific study of and education about plants.”

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WHERE DOES A TRADITIONAL JAPANESE GARDEN fit into these considerations? On the one hand, one might argue that it is a space of quiet contemplation and immersion into nature. As Andrew Deane so aptly put it: “a sounding box for the human soul.” Adding thrills, no matter how beautiful the art, could potentially counteract this. It is also the case that traditionally, Japanese gardens avoid combining out-of-scale elements. The art of reduction is an important principle within the Japanese tradition – miniaturization, after all, a trope – and the specific size of the objects is aesthetically important. Large objects, then, might interrupt the flow.

On the other hand – and I come decisively down on this side – these gardens are designed, not just traditionally incorporating sculpture, albeit restrained in size, in form of lanterns or bridges or pagodas, but in some ways being sculptured themselves: a fictional environment, as someone put it, resembling or symbolizing aspects of nature. Historically they have always been open to innovation. Varying philosophic and religious principles were applied to create a certain aesthetic, and changing tastes in general found their way into design. Already during the Muromachi period (1338–1573,) the character of gardens shifted, with exploration added to or superseding contemplation. Different periods favored different degrees of elaboration—shingyo, and so  (“elaborate,” “intermediate,” and “informal”) are acknowledged principles in garden design, allowing evolution while maintaining a base of traditional elements. We might just think of the (temporary) addition of sculpture as a shin blossoming of this season that adds elaboration – and a reminder that perspectives change, our own as much as those found in the context of the garden landscape or the flora.

Before I turn to the absorbing art on display, two questions remain. How do the gardeners feel about these changes, given that their long involvement with the garden probably invokes a sense of ownership and responsibility to protect? They are the heart of a garden, their labor and care pumping the necessary ingredients through the veins of it, keeping it alive. Of course I could not ask them, “Hey, how do you feel about 200+ pounds of clay being plopped on your delicate mosses,” and even if I did, what could they possibly say?

(The sculptures can range from 30 to 3,000 pounds. The largest ones can take up to three years to complete and involve hand-built construction by attaching thick, large slabs of clay to build up the shape, strategic drying to help make the sculpture sturdy enough to continue building higher and higher without the lower levels cracking and breaking, bisque firing in a kiln to solidify the form, then glazing and firing for a final time to bring out the colors of the glaze.)

A penny for their thoughts. And another one for the brains of the garden, to stick with the analogy; the leadership team that was responsible for the selection of the works. What criteria were used to exclude visual dominance or competition? The garden’s announcement contained the reassurance that:

While it is not the first time that Portland Japanese Garden has displayed large-scale art in its garden spaces, art “in situ” is still a rarity. Pieces on display were carefully selected by the team to accentuate the landscape, without overwhelming or competing with it.”

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The choices, in the end, were quite convincing. Nothing is overwhelming, sizes are manageable, and the one placement of extraordinarily large objects fits well into the center of the Cultural Village Courtyard, not distracting from the garden per se. There is a consistent, coherent, and often peaceful color scheme of black, white and blues throughout, with the occasional outlier hue that relates to its surround. A pleasure to take in.

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“The challenge of making successful work is to create art that strongly engages the viewer’s imagination in any environmental circumstance in which it is placed and experienced. Nothing exists by itself. Everything exists with the balance or imbalance of its relationship to others. This may be one of my central concerns and interests when creating any work. – Jun Kaneko

JUN KANEKO IS NO STRANGER to Portland. He has exhibited here at various venues across decades, and shown extreme generosity in his creation and partial donation of an artistic wall to the Beaverton Library. He is in continual collaboration with the folks at Bullseye Glass, and linked to our current composer in residence at the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, Andy Akiho. The world premiere of Akiho’s commissioned new work honoring Jun Kaneko will be presented in Omaha by the Omaha Symphony in March 2023.

Kaneko was born in Nagoya, Japan in 1942. Trained as a painter, he came to the United States in the early 1960s, and became interested in and involved with the California Clay Movement. Although he worked with different media throughout the years, his super-sized ceramics have been the focus of much public attention, and gained him the 2021  Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award. Details about his career, honors, his studio(s) across the world, and his and his wife’s Ree KANEKO Foundation in Omaha, Nebraska, where he has lived since 1986, can be explored on their websites, which are exquisitely organized. There is also an informative introductory essay to the artist’s work and philosophical outlook from 2021 at Sculpture Magazine. A recent book offers gorgeous photographs and analysis of the evolution of the work.

All sources have interesting bits on the synthesis between ceramic work and formal and post-painterly abstraction, as well as Kaneko’s exploration of different modes of space – the way it is arranged between markings on a sculpture, the way it relates, and the dimensions it assumes. They also point to the evolution of artistic practice toward community interaction and public arts projects which have been a hallmark of the latter stages of Kaneko’s career.

I want to concentrate on Kaneko’s imperative (as quoted above) to engage the viewer’s imagination, and the fundamental relationships – that of maker to artwork, art work to or within environment, and eventually that of perceiver to artwork, the way I experienced it. And experience is the key concept here. I might understand a few things about what brought these sculptures about, more familiar with the vocabulary of modernist painting that is now applied to three-dimensional, often curved space, than the techniques of working with clay (I was stunned to learn that some of his larger works need several years to dry before even the first layer of glaze). I might understand localism, but also that a traveler between distinct cultures has the choice to reinvent himself, adopt the super-sizing of a country keen on BIG, yet retain some sort of etherial aesthetic that I associate with Asian porcelains.

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It is my emotional reaction to the combination of these two, however, those large, solid, earthy, comforting forms seemingly dressed with swathes of fluid, gauzy glazes, energized by dancing dots or swirling spirals or drooping fringes that echo falling rain, that gets me interested in this art. It is the experience that resonates.

Soft rain making the surface more reflective.

Jerome Bruner, one of the founders of the field of cognitive psychology and an eternity ago my dissertation advisor, used to lecture me that desire shapes perception, when at the time I only cared for research on the links between emotion and remembrance. He argued that our focus – my focus – on rational aspects of mental life, our ability to analyze and problem-solve, was too narrow. It is imagination, he suggested, that allows us to make experience meaningful. That narrative mode, as he laid it out in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986), is of course context-dependent. It is affected by our physical and emotional states, by stereotypes and closely held beliefs, and ultimately by our willingness to let go of our ties to logic and let our imagination roam without constraints.

Roam it did. Kaneko’s Dangos, Japanese dumpling-like shaped, might stand for childhood sweets for the artist. In me the vertical cones evoked, despite the absence of defining human features, associations to grandmotherly dimensions, some bulging forms of comforting embraces. Maybe it was the vague resemblance to the form of Babushkas of yore, my childhood nesting dolls. Maybe it was the isolation of the pandemic; the thirst for human contact that led to anthropomorphizing. A thirst not simply slacked by saturated colors, although the optimistic Prussian Blue provided lovely contrast to the misty morning air.

Note how the pattern echoes the surrounding leafy background. Resonating with the garden.

Little drops, the first fall precipitation, adorning some like pearls.

There seemed to be a guardian in front of the Pavilion, standing watch on land that once belonged to others. My imagination assigned the markings on this graceful piece the role of dreamcatcher –impressed by the strength of three-dimensionality captured in the painted shape.

A wound-like marking at the sculpture’s base completed the association to Pacific Northwest tribal history. Art stimulating narrative, potentially accounting for relationships with others and our debt.

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BY INCLINATION AND BY TRAINING, I live in my head. My go-to mode is analytical, and I have always thought that being strongly drawn to gardens all across the world is rooted in the fact that those are places where the mind can wander. You don’t have to understand a garden; you are free to just experience it. Art is a trickier domain. It often begs for understanding, particularly when you’re trying to help others makes sense of it and judge its potential merits. Art that truly reaches me, however, is always one that manages to hush my analytic mode and let imagination in, telling stories filled with affect. Building possible worlds, full of subjective resonance.

One of the strongest experiences of that kind happened a few years back during a fall visit to Venice for the 2015 Biennale, crowds long gone. I traveled alone and found myself late afternoon in the inner courtyard of an ancient Venetian church, Madonna dell’Orto, one of Tintoretto’s favorites. Large heads carved out of rock by British sculptor Emily Young were situated in the cloister, the covered walkways surrounding the enclosure, looking out into the space and at each other. The exhibition was titled Call and Response, and it felt indeed as if those faces called to me. A benevolent yet insistent, often female presence in the male-dominated, hierarchical environment of the Catholic church. I later learned that the artist intended her work to instill communication between mankind and nature, with an eye on climate change destruction in the wings. But at that moment, the distance between me and sculpture filled with emotional connection originating in the seeming call by inanimate faces carved in stone.

Photos: Friderike Heuer

It is obvious why that memory resurfaced. When you enter Portland Japanese Garden you encounter two humongous heads, facing each other in the Village Courtyard. One has expressed facial features, the other encourages face pareidolia, our tendency to see faces in nebulous forms, an inclination that is often used to advantage by visionary artists. There is something distinctly theatrical in the way they are positioned, a call-and-response imaginable between them, a felt disruption when people’s movement fills the gap between.

Theatric expression, in the form of opera set and costume design, has been a part of Kaneko’s more recent artistic practice. So many constraints: constant shift in lighting, constant change in spatial relations, the need to have the music not overwhelmed by visual riches – by all reports, the artistry involved for productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Mozart’s The Magic Flute at world-renowned opera houses have produced resounding successes. (The March 2023 concert of the Omaha Symphony will feature music from all three Kaneko-designed operas, accompanied by visual projections of his work. Images of the designs can be found here.)

Static sculpture escapes those pressures. Its relation to the visual environment is constant.

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THE INSTAGRAM CROWD will descend on this display and any of the others that lend themselves to physical approach. But that will not be the only way these sculptures resonate. Resonance, after all, the term in the exhibition’s title, has so many different meanings. It refers to amplification through additional vibration – note, we’re back to the sounding box! It can also mean a quality of richness or variety, or the quality of evoking a response. A response that included a decided urge to touch the art, a desire to be physically connected, and not just for the junior set.

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If the response to Kaneko’s work is to take pictures, our current means of linking to community and sharing the experience in times of isolation, that would be, by my prediction, a pleasing result to the master. It would be the other end of the arc in a career that saw the artist consigning creativity to the audience in early days. In 1971 people were invited (with seemingly empty invitations printed white on white) to come and see blank walls at the Form Gallery in Osaka, Japan. What do you experience in a space where there is nothing? Visitors were provided with a camera and allowed to take pictures of anything of interest to them, and then the films were developed. The resulting photographs would fill the walls for the duration of the show.

We are privileged in 2022 to have our photography – and our narratives – stimulated by more than blank walls. Kaneko’s art at Portland Japanese Garden encourages immersion into different worlds of our own making.

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Garden of Resonance: The Art of Jun Kaneko 

  • October 1, 2022 / February 20, 2023
  • Portland Japanese Garden
  • 611 S.W. Kingston Avenue
    Portland, Oregon
  • Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays– Mondays; closed Tuesdays
  • Masks are encouraged indoor spaces
  • Ticket information

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Glazed raku ceramic.
Ring-tailed pigeon in my garden.

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Originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on October 10, 2022.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Friderike Heuer is a photographer and photomontage artist. Trained as an experimental psychologist at the New School for Social Research, she taught at Lewis & Clark College until she retired to pursue art full time. Her cultural blog www.heuermontage.com explores art and politics on a daily basis through photography and commentary. She has exhibited most recently at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Camerawork Gallery, on issues concerning migrants and refugees. She frequently volunteers as a photographer for small, local arts non-profits. For more information, visit www.friderikeheuer.online.

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